With the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs set to begin at the end of April, it’s time to start examining the teams that are likely to be competing for Lord Stanley. Are the Maple Leafs legitimate Stanley Cup contenders or are they just pretenders who will occupy one of the sixteen spots in this year’s chase for the cup?
A member of the original six, the Maple Leafs have not made the playoffs since before the last lockout in 2004-05 that wiped out the entire season. The 2003-04 season was the sixth straight year the club made the playoffs and now it’s been seven long years since they’ve had playoff hockey in Toronto.
With eight games remaining in the Leafs schedule and seven points up on the ninth place club, the Leafs look promising to make the cut and play in the second season. But is that as far as it will go or does this team have what it takes to make a run at the Stanley Cup?
The obvious point that will surely bring up the most debate is in goal. Can James Reimer and Ben Scrivens carry the workload and play well enough to help this team win a few rounds. In other words, can Reimer put the team on his back and steal a game or two on the road, like Boston for example, that could be the turning point in the series. Remember Dwayne Roloson when the Edmonton Oilers went on their playoff run in 2005-06 and how he carried the team in multiple games that they had no right to win but managed to squeak out a key victory? Reimer may need to do something similar if this team wants to play past the first round.
Management tried to trade for Roberto Luongo and tried to convince Miikka Kiprusoff to come Toronto but to no avail. Does this mean that management doesn’t have the faith in Reimer or Scrivens to be able to outperform Tuukka Rask or Carey Price or any other goalie the Leafs may face in the first round? Probably not, but it does mean that they recognized the need for a veteran presence in net that has playoff experience.
Regardless, the trades never happened and it’s now Reimer’s job to elevate his game come playoff time. Leafs’ fans will no best if they have complete and utter confidence in Reimer or Scrivens or if trading for Luongo or Kiprusoff was essential.
Leafs’ fans have to recall the 1992-93 playoffs when a young, 23-year old rookie netminder named Felix Potvin stole the show in Toronto and came within a game of leading the Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup final. Maybe twenty years later we’re set for another reunion of sorts for the Maple Leafs, this time in the form of James Reimer.
Up front the play of Phil Kessel recently has brought renewed optimism for the forward after a slow and horrific start. He does bring some playoff experience and despite it being only two seasons in the playoffs, he has averaged a point per game with 15 points in as many games, all with the Boston Bruins.
But if the Leafs should draw the Bruins in the first round will Kessel disappear like he’s known to in the regular season when big Zdeno Chara runs ragged on him? Kessel’s offensive production will be key to the Leafs having success in the postseason and it may mean having to come out from under his shell if they play his former team.
Having a healthy team is always vital to a club’s chances in competing for the cup and perhaps none more so than Joffrey Lupul‘s to the Maple Leafs. When he’s playing this year for the Leafs he scoring goals. When he’s not the team is still finding ways to win but it’s obvious they are a much better club with him in the lineup. Whether or not he can recover from the concussion that the team refuses to admit that he has could go a long way in determining how far the Leafs will play into the spring.
Another key is Nazem Kadri. The often scrutinized forward is having a career year with 17 goals and 23 assists in 40 games. There have been nights where Kadri has won the Leafs the game on his own. How well that translates into playoff production will remain to be seen but the Leafs need him to continue his torrid pace to have a shot.
On the backend the Maple Leafs can look no further than their captain Dion Phaneuf. He needs to lead by example which also means staying out of the penalty box. Discipline will be crucial for the Leafs and their captain has to reiterate that by his own play.
Cody Franson, John-Michael Liles and Ryan O’Byrne will need to elevate their game and youngsters Michael Kotska and Carl Gunnarsson need to play fearless. Of course there is the Jake Gardiner fiasco that is ongoing in Toronto who could be an asset come playoff time.
The Maple Leafs have the toughness to compete with the Bruins should they meet in the first round, they just have to play like it and not back down.
It may be asking too much to have all the above come together and even then it might not be enough for the Leafs to win the cup. But if last year’s epic run by the Los Angeles Kings taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen and never rule out the impossible.
All the jokes about the Leafs winning that cup and 1967 could finally be erased or it could be another year tacked on to the drought. Either way, the Maple Leafs are sure to bring some exciting hockey to the playoffs this year. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.
What are your thoughts or comments. Do the Leafs have a chance to win the Stanley Cup or do they fall into the pretender category? Leave your comments below.